drone flying over mountain tops in the arctic

New perspectives when the drones fly over climate change research

Temperatures in the polar regions are rising, and global warming is threatening animals, nature and humankind. In an extensive EU project, AFRY is studying how drones can be used in extreme polar environments to support research in climate change.

Climate change is impacting the polar regions more remarkably than any other areas. The sea ice has been reduced by nearly 40 percent since the 1970s, resulting in serious global consequences such as changed sea levels and disrupted ecosystems. Melting glaciers and rising sea temperatures at both the North and South Poles are direct effects of an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To avoid a climate disaster, a better overview of the situation in the sensitive and hard-to-reach polar areas is needed.

“We need to know what’s happening in the Arctic in order to navigate how to reach a more sustainable system in the future”, says Margareta Johansson, researcher and project coordinator at Lund University. The researcher is the coordinator of Interact, a collaborative EU-funded project for international polar research. This network gathers researchers from 80 different polar stations around the globe and aims to build up capacity to better identify, understand and predict climate changes in the Arctic regions.

Better measurement methods and more information

Currently, there are two primary methods of collecting data from arctic environments: satellites and field work. The images and data provided by satellites in outer space is general, and seldom offer such detail views as vegetation and snow layers. In addition, it is not always possible to conduct test manually at vast and inhospitable polar regions.

To overcome the difficulties, drones are becoming more common as a tool for polar research in recent years. However, knowledge of the potential that drone technology has for research work in an arctic environment is limited within the academia. Therefore AFRY has initiated the project “Drones in Arctic Environments” within the Interact framework, in which the use of drones and sensors for collecting more and better data in high alpine and arctic environments is studied in cooperation with polar researchers.

“Drones in the Arctic could be used for any number of things, such as taking water samples to measuring the extent and dynamics of glaciers. Data collected by drones can be combined with satellite data. More and better information will give research added value”, says Tomas Gustafsson, the AFRY consultant that is leading the project.

Collaborating with the industry

Three Swedish polar research stations are participating in the project, which started at the end of 2016 and will continue throughout 2017. The first phase will provide an in-depth view of the researchers’ requirements in the field and to map the currently available drone technology. That will result in a “best practices” standard for how drones and sensor technology can be used in arctic environments.

“Together with researchers, we’re considering how to employ today’s technology, and necessary further improvements. We want to spread the knowledge and give the recommendations of how drones can be used for research purposes”, Tomas explains.

A central part of the project is to interact with parties outside of the research community.
“We want to connect those who develop drones and the researchers who are using them, so that manufacturers and drone providers can come up with solutions based on existing needs”, Tomas continues.

One of those partaking in the project is Gunhild Rosqvist, Professor of Physical Geography and head of the Tarfala research station in the Kebnekaise massif, which is also part of Interact’s network. Researchers there have used drones to photograph the mountain environment. Gunhild sees great possibilities with the technology:

“The first time I saw pictures taken by a drone in the Arctic, I knew immediately that this is the technology we need. In addition to providing a more detailed view of the landscape, drones also facilitate in measuring vegetation and the ecosystem. It would be possible to add sensors to the drone – such as laser, radar or microwaves – depending on what needs to be measured. This really holds great potential.”

A tool for the reindeer industry

An additional group that is interested in the drone technology is the Saami society – the indigenous people of the Nordics. Today, the Saami mainly use helicopters to monitor and track their reindeer herds. If some of the work tasks could be replaced by drones, it would reduce the environmental footprint as well as material consumption. The savings in time and money would be beneficial to the indigenous people’s limited resources. Even the drones’ ability to give a more accurate picture of the climate situation in the Swedish mountains would generate a positive effect on the reindeer husbandry and Saami society, Tomas believes. A change in the mountain landscape impacts the conditions for the reindeer industry, which today is an important source of income for many of the Saami. Reindeer seek lichen by rummaging through the snow. Melting snow forms a compact layer of ice, which makes it difficult for the reindeer to find food. The reindeer herds will therefore need to be moved more frequently to new grazing grounds – a very resource demanding task.

“The possibility to measure snow thickness more precisely by using a drone – and thus predict when the snow will melt – can contribute a lot”, says Tomas Gustafsson.

The Swedish mountain region has been severely impacted by the climate change, and in addition also by increased ecotourism and the exploitation of wind power, hydropower and mining. It is imperative that polar research maintains a high quality in the future, not only from a climate change point of view but also from a national and financial perspective. The mountain landscape is quite significant for Sweden as a tourist destination. It also has an important cultural significance as the home of the Saami people.

“Our magnificent mountains have an important social purpose. To maintain the Saami culture, we must ensure that the reindeer herds can continue grazing”, Tomas Gustafsson concludes.